Karma is a word one runs across more and more these days. It’s too bad it is almost always misused. Somehow in English it has come to mean “fate” or “destiny” (American Heritage Dictionary). This is an unfortunate, if inevitable, distortion, because in its original Buddhist context karma is a concept of unparalleled profundity and significance.
The word karma simply means “action” and is derived from the verbal root kr which mean “to do” or “to make.” There are three distinct senses of the word here, and what renders the concept unique is that all three are inseparable aspects of the same process. We may be used to thinking of (1) the decision to do something as one thing, (2) the action carrying it out as another, and (3) what we make thereby, or the result of the action, as being something else again. But in Buddhist understanding these three are parts of the same whole. Intention is the leading edge of karma, directing the activities of body, speech, and mind to act in ways that accumulate, at its trailing edge, karmic formations or dispositions. Action, in other words, is preceded by a sort of “doing” in which decisions are made and results in a sort of “making” in which a unique personality is constructed. The main idea behind karma is thus the relationship between what we choose to do and what we thereby make of ourselves.
This can perhaps best be seen when the word for action is used simultaneously as a verb and a noun, as in the expression sankharam abhisankharoti (Samyutta Nikaya 12.51). There are many ways this can be put into English, such as “one forms formations,” “one constructs constructions,” “one creates creations,” or “one fabricates fabrications.” You get the idea. When action is enacted, so to speak, it involves both the activity of building something and the product of that activity, something built. An image sometimes used to convey this in the texts is of a potter at his wheel. The potter is engaged in the creative process of shaping the clay according to his will, and when the pot is cut off the wheel and fired in a kiln it remains as an enduring artifact of that activity. So also our character, our personality, our very self, is viewed in Buddhist thought as a gallery of ossified karmic relics, the accumulated residue of earlier dynamic processes of intention and action.
With the outward focus of most Western thinking, we are used to the idea of making choices in response to shifting worldly circumstances, and to the fact that our actions result in changes to our environment. From this perspective, a great emphasis is placed upon what it is we do, and on whether or not our actions are effective in bringing about the external changes we intend. The Buddhist tradition, however, is more interested in the internal dimensions of action. Here the more important questions include “What effect on our own well-being are our decisions having?” and “How are we being changed by our actions?” What we do, from this point of view, is far less important than how we do it. Karma is primarily concerned with how we shape ourselves, and how we are shaped by ourselves, through action.
The self is plastic, a malleable clay being molded each moment by intention. Just as our scientists are discovering not only how the mind is shaped by the brain but now, too, how the brain is shaped by the mind, so the Buddha described long ago the interdependent process by which intentions are conditioned by dispositions and dispositions in turn are conditioned by intentions. The actions that make up the tangible expression of our lives are merely a go-between, as the world we construct is a mere offshoot, of who we are ever re-becoming.
In a moment of anger, for example, whether acted out, verbalized, or merely seething unexpressed within, one trains oneself to become angrier by laying down a thin layer (there’s the verb and noun again) of angry disposition. A person so disposed to anger will more and more easily erupt in anger anew at any provocation. But in a moment of kindness a kindly disposition is deposited, and one becomes incrementally more disposed to kindness. The attitude with which we respond to an object of experience, with anger or with kindness, will therefore not only influence the causal field outside ourselves but also progressively reshape our very nature.
The secret of who we are is thus found in what we do; yet even what we do is only one phase in a larger cycle of becoming. We inherit our karma from our past, from previous moments of existence in the form of a self—a bundle of dispositions, more precisely— and that past shapes how we understand and construct our present intentions. Yet every moment we also have our future karma in our own hands, as we shape a response to whatever is arising in present experience. This response, which may be more or less wholesome or skillful, is what determines what we will inherit downstream in the flow of consciousness.
The crucial factor influencing how well we can respond in any given situation seems to be the level of mindfulness we can bring to bear upon the moment. If we don’t care to be present, unconscious decision-making systems will function to get us through to the next moment, albeit in the grips of (often flawed) learned behaviors and conditioned responses. If, on the other hand, we can increase the amount of conscious awareness present by manifesting mindfulness, we expand the range of our possible responses. Even if disposed to anger, we can choose to act with kindness. This is the essence of our freedom in an otherwise heavily conditioned system.
So karma is not something outside ourselves that happens to us (as we in the West are so used to thinking of everything being) but is something far more intimate and even, although I hesitate to use the word, personal. As the Buddha put it, “Beings are owners of their actions, heirs of their actions; they originate from their actions, are bound to their actions, have their actions as their refuge. It is action that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior.” (Majjhima Nikaya 135)
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